The Best Year for the Classic Pontiac GTO

Is it 1966 or 1967?

1966 Pontiac GTO Convertible
All Original 1966 Pontiac GTO Convertible. Photo by Mark Gittelman

Of course, picking the best year for the classic Pontiac GTO boils down to personal preference. The Pontiac Motor Division of General Motors built the first generation cars from 1964 through 1967, and each year made major improvements in body style, reliability, safety, and performance.

The Kickoff

Pontiac offered what it called its GTO option package for the first time in 1964, on the midsize Pontiac Tempest. The initials GTO were designer John DeLorean's homage to the famous Ferrari race car, which had earned European racing's Gran Turismo Omologato designation. The almost $300 performance package came standard with the 389 cubic inch big block engine. The basic GTO upgrade on the Tempest Lemans pushed the price tag to just shy of $3,000.

However, what you got with the base model was the single four-barrel 325 horsepower version of the 389. The standard transmission featured a Hurst shifter, but only had three forward speeds. Upgrading to a Tri-power 389 Trophy Motor and a four-speed carried additional charges.

In fact, you could keep on adding options until the price tag reached over $4,500. They built a grand total of 32,450 Tempest Lemans GTO cars in 1964. When you come across a 1964 example that the owner claims to be all original, you'll have to do some research into what the car came with from the factory.

Fortunately, organizations like the Pontiac Historical Society can provide complete factory information packages for under $100. This detailed report is a must for serious car collectors. It can also come in handy when reselling the automobile down the road.

Bona Fide GTOs

In 1964 and 1965 they called the GTO a fast and fancy Tempest Lemans. In 1966, Pontiac gave the nameplate the respect it deserved and spun the vehicle off as its own separate model. This year would be a big year in many ways for the midsize Pontiac muscle car.

First of all, Pontiac would sell nearly 100,000 total units in 1966, the best-selling year in the history of the GTO model. And despite dropping the tri-power option, you could get a 389 V8 pushing out 360 horsepower. In 1967, Pontiac dropped the 389 motor in favor of the larger displacement 360 horsepower, 400 cubic inch V8.

The legendary Pontiac 400 would remain a staple for the division for more than a decade, and soon it would be offered in the Ram Air I through IV high performance versions. There's also a big difference in the automatic transmissions offered in 1966 and 1967.

Two of the best General Motors transmissions of all time, the Turbo Hydra-Matic 350 and the Turbo Hydra-Matic 400, were available starting in 1967. Gone forever were the two-speed slush boxes, better known as the Pontiac version of the Powerglide.

Even the interior went through numerous changes in the 1966 redesign. It was more thoughtful and also more comfortable. General Motors designers finally moved the ignition key to the right side of the steering column, made all interior knobs and handles from a more durable plastic rather than the traditional brittle pot metal, and installed new Strato bucket seats with contoured cushions and adjustable headrests. 

The Differences Between a 1966 and a 1967 GTO

Some classic car collectors will assert that there is little difference between the last two years of the first generation GTO. But if you take a closer look, you'll see there is, in fact, quite a long lists of items that distinguish the two cars. 

Before we start talking about the interior, exterior, and safety differences, let's not forget that the 1966 cars came with a 389 and the 1967 models came with a 400 cubic inch V8. That's a major difference right there. 

As are the taillights. In 1966, they used a unique louvered cover over the 12 bars, six on each side, on the rear taillights. For the 1967 model year, they did away with the louver cover and changed the taillight design into eight—four on each side—bar-style taillights.

Another big difference between the two years is the front grille. Although both cars utilized a vertically stacked quad headlamp set up with integrated fog lights, they looked very different. The 1966 model had a square egg-crate-style inset surrounded by a two-inch plastic molding painted in a contrasting silver color. In 1967, the grille changed to a diamond pattern mesh inset with a black border. 

It's also easy to tell the years apart by looking at the chrome rocker trim. On the 1966 model, the trim is about an inch thick and the GTO emblem is located separately in between the door and the wheel opening on the front fender. In 1967, the rocker trim is much wider and the GTO emblem is integrated into the rocker trim located behind the front wheel.

Then there are the safety features, most of which were implemented in 1967 for the first time—the padded dash and collapsible steering column, for instance, which were designed to protect drivers in the event of a front-end collision. The 1967 GTO is also the first to include a dual chamber brake master cylinder as standard equipment. This provides a level of redundancy in case of catastrophic brake failure. Finally, the front drum brakes were replaced with disc assemblies as standard equipment. This improvement reduced stopping distances considerably. The Pontiac in 1970 also came in the 455-cubic inch big block GM engine.

Picking the Best Year for the Pontiac GTO

This is no easy task. The grille, chrome trim, and rear taillight louvers on the 1966 model are exceptional looking. However, given all the safety features on the 1967 model, as well as the 400 cubic inch V8 engine, the 1967 is likely your best bet if you're looking to buy one of these classic cars. Plus, while goodies for the older 389 are not readily available, they are easy and inexpensive to obtain for the popular Pontiac 400.